Antiwar activists split over Obama's Afghanistan policy

Lawmakers and others who were against the Iraq war generally support the president. But they worry about another 'quagmire.'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The anti-war movement that helped elect Candidate Obama is in the early throes of a debate over whether to ramp up again – this time, over President Obama's plans to step up US engagement in Afghanistan.

For many activists – on and off Capitol Hill – it's a tough call. It's early in a new administration, they say. Even opponents of the troop buildup in Afghanistan say that they like and still trust this president. They want to give him time.

They also like much of what they're hearing from the Obama White House.

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Instead of the go-it-alone, "cowboy diplomacy" of the Bush years, Obama pushes concepts like "shared responsibility" and "civilian effort," they say.

But Obama's decision to send another 21,000 troops to Afghanistan to help stabilize "the most dangerous place in the world," as he calls it, is shifting some anti-war activists into (reluctant) opposition. It's also forcing some members of Congress to explain to voters why they opposed a troop buildup in Iraq but now support one in Afghanistan.

"This could be a one-way ticket to a quagmire," says former US Rep. Tom Andrews (D) of Maine, national director of the Win Without War coalition.

"Sometimes less is more. In the case of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the deployment of US troops can be a source of instability, not stability," he says. "These are very real concerns that we have, and we want to articulate them in a respectful way."

Since President Obama's announcement of a new strategy in Afghanistan last month, Win Without War and other groups have been trying to revive a dialogue on the war. They're especially urging members of Congress and the news media to get back to the business of vigorous criticism and oversight.

The anti-war movement shifted into low gear after Obama's election. Funding and staffing for most groups dropped, in some cases precipitously. Code Pink activists – a highly visible presence at war hearings and protests in the Bush years – have shifted their target from war to Wall Street.

Some elements of the anti-Iraq War coalition think that the buildup in Afghanistan is warranted, even essential.

"Americans have more business in Afghanistan than they ever did in Iraq, Bosnia, Lebanon, Somalia, Panama, or Grenada," says Jon Soltz, chairman and cofounder of VoteVets.org, which rallied veterans against the war in Iraq in the Bush years.

The reason the US is in Afghanistan is that we were attacked, he adds. "As someone who fought in Iraq, I don't think people are as ready to give up on President Obama as they were on George Bush. I'm biased to think that we give this president a chance."

On Capitol Hill, the once-robust Out of Iraq Caucus has also been largely silent on the troop buildup in Afghanistan. Members say they're still working to find common ground.

"We're not there yet," says Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D) of California, a cofounder together with Reps. Barbara Lee (D) and Maxine Waters (D), both of California.

Meanwhile, the Out of Iraq Caucus will be sponsoring forums to help educate members. "History makes it clear that the Afghan people do not look kindly on foreign armies," Rep. Woolsey said in a floor speech on March 30.

"I am also concerned about the cost of sending more troops, the cost in both lives and treasure. It will require a 60 percent increase in military spending at a time when our economy right here at home is suffering so badly," she said. "Now is the time to pause to consider whether there are other alternatives to sending our troops to Afghanistan."

United in opposition to the war in Iraq, liberal Democrats – many of whom have yet to state publicly their view on the buildup – are breaking out more nuanced positions on the war in Afghanistan. Some favor it; some oppose it. All want the president to be successful, and they say it's too early for a confrontation on the policy.

"He's moving away from a military-only protocol that was the hallmark of the Bush years – to the degree that Bush and Cheney were interested in Afghanistan at all – in favor of a community-based, civilian-based, civil society-based policy," says Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D) of Hawaii, a member of the Out of Iraq Caucus.

"Whether or not that succeeds obviously is something that is still open, but it won't be from lack of effort on the president's part," he says.

Another caucus member, Rep. Jim McDermott (D) of Washington, who opposes the buildup, worries that the president may yet be drawn into a mainly military approach to the conflict.

"Those of us who lived through Vietnam are very upset with what's going on [in Afghanistan]," he says. "All of us want him to succeed, desperately want him to succeed. But we worry that as John Kennedy got wrapped up by those guys that sent him to the Bay of Pigs, he'll listen to the guys who say: 'Mr. President, you want to look good, don't you? You don't want to look like a quitter or a loser or weak?'"

But even before they confront the president, Democrats are confronting concerns at home about the new direction of the war in Afghanistan.

Rep. Paul Hodes (D) of New Hampshire, who campaigned against the war in Iraq, saw the first anti-war protests of the Obama administration last month in his hometown of Concord. Even though the protests are small, he says he needs to explain his stance to voters, and the situation is "difficult and complex."

"I opposed the war in Iraq because it was not merely a diversion from the effort that we need to make to battle terrorism, not merely because it was sold on false premises, but because it made us less safe and secure as a country and a world," he says.

"I have long believed that our efforts needed to be directed to Pakistan and Afghanistan in a coherent way with a comprehensive strategy that does not rely on military force alone," he adds.

New Hampshire peace activists planning vigils in Nashua, Concord, and Durham next week to protest the buildup in Afghanistan say they expect to meet with their congressional delegation on the issue.

"We're very concerned that the president announced the increase in troops even before having a coherent plan in place," says Anne Miller, executive director of Peace Action of New Hampshire, which claims some 3,000 members statewide.

"We're still not clear what this plan will accomplish, what benchmarks are, what a win would look like," she adds. "We have colleagues that just got back from Kabul and not one Afghani they spoke to thought that having more troops there would make a difference."

For the most part, Americans aren't focused on the war in Afghanistan, pollsters say. Wall Street and the economy are much bigger concerns, but that's beginning to shift, too.

"There's polling data showing a higher percentage of those saying that the war in Afghanistan has not been worth it," says pollster John Zogby of Zogby International.

"Americans like their wars to be won and short. But President Obama is still getting some slack, as far as the public is concerned," he adds.

As candidate, Obama clearly signaled his intent as president to withdraw US forces from Iraq to refocus energies on the war in Afghanistan. That clarity helps give credibility to the steps he's taking now, say Congress watchers.

"You've got a lot of antiwar liberals who said he didn't really mean that – that he's just talking that way to look tough. What we're learning is that, like many things he's doing on the domestic front, he's doing what he said," says Norman Ornstein a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

"He's got a year – and the protests will start before that," he adds. "If it looks like we're bogged down and lot of Americans are dying, we're in a different situation."

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